Monday, 31 January 2011

The organisation of nature

Below is chapter 2 of my study guide on "The Philosophy of Creation in Some Answered Questions". The chapter is called "The organisation of nature". It is divided into two sections: "The structure of nature" and "Spirit and being in nature". Again, the numbers in brackets refer to chapters of SAQ. References that are up against the margin refer to the set of paragraphs above it.


The structure of nature

The material world is nature's world of appearance

Abdu'l-Baha defines 'nature' as "that condition or reality that, in appearance, consists of life and death or the composition and decomposition of things". (1)

This tells us that the appearance of nature is the world we witness as life and death, or the composition and decomposition of things. For Abdu'l-Baha, 'life and death' and 'the process of composition and decomposition' are the same thing.

The reality that appears to us in this way is the material world, which is created from things that are subject to composition and decomposition, from the largest object in outer space to the smallest atom. We think of the material world as a solid physical thing, but this apparent solidity is not what defines the material world; it is in fact the process of elements combining and recombining. Keven Brown puts it this way:

"What defines the material realm is not matter, which is an essential principle of both the material and spiritual worlds, but the ability of something to become decomposed after composition." Keven Brown, "Creation", section 3

So the world of appearance in nature is the material world.

The essence of nature is an intellectual reality

If the reality of nature has a world of appearance, this implies that part of that reality is a world that does not appear. In this respect, nature can be likened to a human being, who appears as a physical body, but who also has a rational soul, which cannot be seen.

Abdu'l-Baha says that: "nature… in its essence, is an intellectual reality and is not sensible." (16)

An intellectual reality is "a reality of the intellect; it has no outward form and no place and is not perceptible to the senses." (16)

Examples of an intellectual reality include spiritual qualities, love, sorrow and the rational soul, for these are realities but do not have a place or form and cannot be perceived by the senses. For more details on intellectual realities, see "Spirit appears in nature as a set of powers", below.

Nature's reality has a hidden dimension that is its essence. This is an intellectual reality, which means it does not have a place or form and it cannot be perceived by the senses.

The intellectual realities are nature's organisation

In Baha'i World Faith, Abdu'l-Baha gives another definition of nature, which gives us more information about the reality he had in mind when he spoke about nature. He says:

"By nature is meant those inherent properties and necessary relations derived from the realities of things. And these realities of things, though in the utmost diversity, are yet intimately connected one with the other." (p340, 344)

In this passage, Abdu'l-Baha is referring to the intellectual realities that are the invisible properties of things in nature and the relationships that exist between things. These intellectual realities and their relationships are diverse and yet they form a close network of interconnectedness.

These intellectual realities and relationships are like the properties and relationships of the parts of the human body. Each part is designed with its own purpose and influence and has crucial relationships to the other parts.

Similarly, all parts of nature are connected together like a chain and act on other parts. All have a power to influence others either directly or indirectly. This is due to the capacity for "reciprocal help, assistance and interaction" that is a property of all things. This mutual influence causes beings to come into existence, and to grow and develop. (46)

Nature is ruled by one divine organisation

"Nature in its own essence is in the grasp of the power of God … He holds Nature within accurate regulations and laws, and rules over it." (1)

Ultimately, the things in nature and their inherent realities and relationships are governed by an all-unifying power. This is the Will of God.

This all-unifying power determines the structure of the overall organisation and the laws that govern its functioning. It defines how the elements that make up the beings in nature are combined, mingled and arranged, thereby mapping out their form, purpose, influence and lifespan. Nothing can deviate from this organisation. (1)

Beings come into existence only from this natural organisation. This is why no being can come into existence by chance or by the design of humans. They can only come into being through the operation of the divine organisation. (47)

Things in nature have no will or intelligence. They act according to their inherent nature; for example, the element of fire burns, the element of water flows, plants grow and light shines according to their natures and not according to an individual will and intelligence. The exceptions to this are the beings that have perception, which are animals and humans. The movements of animals and humans are voluntary. (1)

Perfections in nature are revealed gradually

"The universe has no imperfection." The world that exists could not be better than it is, because it has been created according to the divine organisation. If the world were not perfect, this would mean the Creator lacked perfection. (46)

All beings are created perfect and complete at the start of their existence, but their perfections appear in degrees. All perfections appear when a being reaches maturity.

For example, all the perfections of the plant are contained in the seed. But these are not visible until the seed opens and begins the growth process. The plant then begins to manifest leaves, stems, branches, flowers and fruits.

In the same way, the embryo develops gradually, passing through different forms from a fertilised egg into a mature adult human being. During this process, hidden perfections in the embryo show up in the person's differing forms and strengthening abilities. For example, the perfections of spirit, mind, sight, smell and taste become manifest by degree.

Also, the earth was created from the first "with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms". But these perfections developed gradually and appeared by degree; for example, minerals appeared first and humans appeared later.


The same principle applies to original matter, which is the embryonic state of the universe. Its earliest forms gradually grew and developed through ages and cycles until it appeared in the system of nature that we know today. (47)

The purpose of nature is human existence

The purpose of existence is to reflect the divine perfections. This purpose is carried out within the reality of humanity. For this reason, human beings are created with the ability to reflect all the divine perfections. (50)

Humans are unique among all beings in nature in their ability to reflect all the divine perfections. They constitute the highest, or chief, member of nature - like the fruit of the fruit tree of the world. (46, 52)

There was never a time when humanity did not exist, in the same way that the fruit of the tree always exists, even if it has not yet appeared on the tree. If humanity at one time did not exist, then existence would have lacked its purpose. (46)

Species do not evolve out of other species

In accordance with the principle that perfections appear gradually, the appearance of humanity in the world has passed through numerous stages and forms. Signs in the human body of redundant organs from ages past are proof of that evolution. Throughout this process, humanity has always been a distinct species. This evolutionary process should be likened to the development of the person in the womb. The embryo is, from the beginning, a human embryo and never an animal embryo. Changes in form do not mean changes in species. (47)

Again, in accordance with the principle that perfections appear gradually, the earth reveals its perfections in stages. This has meant that animals appeared on earth before humans. But this does not mean that humans were once animals. The order in which beings appear in nature is determined by the divine organisation. It is not evidence that a later species developed out of an earlier one. (49)

Individual beings in nature are unique

"No being in any respect is identical with, or the same as, another being." (81)

All things are unique. This is because all things reflect the divine perfection of oneness. This principle applies to spiritual beings as well as those composed of elements.

Because of this principle, it is impossible that a thing, with its exact same composition of elements, should appear twice in this world. Therefore, the doctrine of reincarnation, where a person, after death, is believed to return to this world in a new life, is false.

However, categories of beings, or species, do appear repeatedly in nature. For example, the same kind of tree or bird or animal appears repeatedly, and this is the reason for the appearance of species in nature. But the same individual being, with the exact same make up of elements, does not reappear in a nature. Species appear repeatedly through combinations of new elements.


Spirit and being in nature

Spirit appears in nature as a set of powers

By the word 'spirit', Abdu'l-Baha is referring to a power that a thing in nature inherently possesses as a result of the combination of its elements, which enables it to perceive realities in nature and/or have an effect on nature.

Spirits are intellectual realities; that is, they have "no outward form and no place and [are] not perceptible to the senses."(16) The only way we can access them is through our minds. Because spirits are intellectual realities, they cannot do the things that sensible realities do; for example, they do not enter and exit bodies, or come down or go up from bodies. Instead, spirits have a "direct connection" to the body or a thing. For example, the intellectual reality of knowledge is directly connected with the brain, but does not enter the brain. The relationship of "direct connection" is like that of images reflected in a mirror. (25)

Because spirits are intellectual realities and cannot be accessed directly using the senses, the proof of spirits is through the effects they produce in nature. For example, using our senses, we are able to witness that plants have the power to grow and animals have the powers of the senses. (48)

Spirit in nature is not the same thing as the 'Spirit' referred to in the scriptures; for example, where Christ says: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is Spirit”. This is because the spirits in nature are subject to composition, corruption, change and decomposition, whereas the Spirit referred to in the scriptures is a divine perfection and an effulgence of the world of the Kingdom. See Baha'i World Faith, p 370.

Four grades of spirit and being in nature

Generally speaking, there are four grades of spirit found in nature:

  1. the mineral spirit
  2. the vegetable spirit
  3. the animal spirit
  4. the human spirit. (36)

In relation to these four grades of spirit, there are four kinds of beings in nature: mineral, vegetable, animal and human. (50)

The mineral spirit

The mineral spirit is not mentioned specifically in Some Answered Questions, but in Baha'i World Faith, Abdu'l-Baha identifies that there is a spirit in the mineral:

"As to the existence of spirit in the mineral: it is indubitable that minerals are endowed with a spirit and life according to the requirements of that stage." (p 338)

Abdu'l-Baha does not say what power the mineral spirit refers to. It could refer to such phenomena as chemical reactions, electricity and nuclear power.

In Some Answered Questions (36), Abdu'l-Baha does refer to electricity and the fact that, like all else in nature, it is subject to the composition and decomposition of elements:

"So, to use another figure, electricity results from the combination of elements, and when these elements are separated, the electric force is dispersed and lost."

This tells us that he saw the power of electricity as a power of nature, whatever category of spirit he might have placed it in. The quote comes in his discussion on the vegetable spirit.

The vegetable spirit

The vegetable spirit is the power of growth. It comes about through:

  • the combination of elements
  • the mingling of substances
  • the influence, effect and connection of other existences.

When the above three requirements for the vegetable spirit are withdrawn - for example, when the elements are no longer combined - the vegetable spirit is terminated. (36)

Perfection in the vegetable world is to grow well in ideal conditions and to fruit. Prosperity in this world is to progress into, and nourish, beings in the animal and human worlds. (15)

The animal spirit

The animal spirit is the power of the senses. It perceives the reality of things from what is visible, audible, edible, tangible and smelled. (36) It is the lowest level of perception in nature. (58)

It comes about through the combination of elements and the mingling of substances. But the processes of combining and mingling are more complete and perfect than those for the vegetable spirit. It is like a lamp, which produces light when the oil, wick and fire are brought together. (36)

When the above requirements for the animal spirit are withdrawn - for example, when the elements are no longer combined - the animal spirit is terminated. (36)

Perfection in the animal world is to grow well in ideal surroundings and have all needs supplied. Prosperity in this world is to progress into, and nourish, human beings. (15)

The human spirit

The human spirit is also called the rational soul and the human reality.

The human spirit is the intellectual power of investigation and discovery, and the reasoning faculty that apprehends ideas and intelligible and sensible things. It encompasses all things. It can make discoveries in the spiritual worlds as well as in the physical world. (38) Its power is behind the development of sciences, arts, law, inventions and so on, which were once hidden and unknown. (48) The human spirit is the highest level of perception in nature. (58)

The relationship of the human spirit to the body is like the sun shining in the mirror. The sun appears in the mirror but does not descend into it. (38)

The human spirit is attracted to the human body like a magnet. This occurs when the elements of the body are brought together according to the laws of nature. (38) This attraction takes place as a matter of course, in the same way that, if a mirror is clear and facing the sun, it will certainly become illumined and reflect the sun's rays. (52)

Unlike the other spirits in nature, the human spirit does not cease to exist when the body's elements decompose. It is a "divine sign" - that is, it reflects the perfections of God - and is therefore eternal. (38)

"'Abdu’l-Bahá explains… that because the soul of man 'is not a composition of diverse elements…and is not subject to decomposition…it is ever-living, immortal, and eternal.'" Keven Brown, "Creation", section 3

More details about the human spirit will appear in the next chapter, "The nature of the human spirit".

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